Why are people worried about “vaccine shedding”? (Spoiler alert: it’s NOT A THING!!!!!!)

I wrote a post last week rounding up the science related to people’s worries about a possible relationship between covid vaccines and various reproductive/menstrual issues. The bottom line was:

  • a recent vaccine MIGHT give you an inaccurate reading on a mammogram, but any lymph node inflammation will subside after about a month (lymph node swelling is a normal effect of engaging your immune system with any vaccine)
  • some people have noted menstrual oddities after vaccines, which may be “just plain stress” or may be, again, a temporary effect of your immune system swinging into gear
  • both the mRNA (moderna, pfizer) and viral vector (oxford astrazeneca and Johnson and johnson) types of vaccine have been tested and found safe for pregnancy

At the end of my post, I noted something I just called “lunacy”: the vague little wave of nonsense making the rounds right now that somehow vaccinated people can “shed virus” (or “shed vaccine”) and cause some sort of magical interference with other people’s uteruses.

I thought that one paragraph and my link to Jen Gunter’s “it’s a vaccine not a spell” would be enough to shut down that discussion. But oh, how naïve I was. Someone on the blog’s facebook page begged me to stop spreading misinformation (while kind of accusing me of being duped by fake science). And then Nicole shared that she’d seen a whole whack of people on twitter yammering about how their hairdressers or what have you wouldn’t take vaccinated clients “because of the shedding of the spike protein.” And then there’s that school in Miami.

I briefly ducked into twitter, eyes squinting and sort of hunching over, trying to avoid getting hit by a nonsense bomb. Four or five minutes was enough to despair for the future of knowledge.

Well, Chemin, I sure wouldn’t want you catching my baby. But you know what? No one is catching ANYTHING from a vaccinated person. Which, you know, as a health provider you should know.

But here goes, one more time. I don’t expect this to “convince” anyone who believes I’m a vaccinated zombie, but it should give you a bit of an understanding of how to respond if you trip over some of this nonsense. The made up story of “vaccine shedding” goes something like this:

  • The concept of “viral shedding” is a term used to describe how much of an actual virus (not a vaccine, the actual virus) makes its way out of one infected person into the air or into another person — through coughing, or blood, of other waste products. This is a term that was used a lot at the beginning of the pandemic to try to determine how infectious COVID-19 was, and how prevalent virus was in things like respiratory droplets. (Why we wear masks, for the record — to contain our own shedding in our own little bubble as much as possible).
  • In the world generally, as COVID vaccines started to be developed, the people with questions about new vaccines (all along the continuum from vaguely and appropriately hesitant to microchip zombie conspiracy pure anti-vax bonkers) put a lot of their energy into asking whether the new vaccines were safe. This is a good and reasonable question — they’re new! Two of the prominent ones have a newish technology! But somewhere in there, ONE paragraph in a 146 page document outlining the study protocols for the Pfizer vaccine got yanked out of context and mis-interpreted as “hidden proof that we are being lied to about the vaccine.”
  • If you wade into the twitterverse of wild-eyed anti-vaxxers, it’s this one paragraph that is breathlessly reposted over and over. This section in the study protocol, which is super standard for any clinical trial, basically says “study participants who are exposed to the vaccine while pregnant or when they are putting sperm into someone to get them pregnant need to report this” (Dr. Jen Gunter does very useful work explaining this in this post). This is a very very standard thing in any study — researchers want to know and account for whether or not someone in their study is pregnant, so they can consider that in their findings. (And note that even THIS doesn’t say “hugging or cutting the hair of a vaccinated person needs to be reported” — the connection to sperm somehow got translated to general proximity).

So let me recap the elements of how this “false truth” became so quickly embedded:

Vaccine hesitancy (or just plain anti-vax beliefs) + a new vaccine + generalized anxiety + alluring language about viral shedding + a boilerplate warning about pregnancy in a study + an enticing and scary term like “spike protein” + [whatever dash of conspiracy theory suits you] = “vaccinated people can shed spike protein, which is dangerous for pregnant people or people who might want want to get pregnant.”

Let me say this really clearly: this is… bonkers.

All vaccines — even those with live viruses, which the Pfizer is NOT — do not inject spike proteins into our bodies, they inject — “the instructions to teach our cells how to make a protein, or even just a piece of a protein, that triggers an immune response in our bodies. After the protein piece is made, the cell breaks down the instructions and gets rid of them. The immune response, which produces antibodies, is what protects us from getting infected if the real virus enters our bodies.”

“Shedding vaccine” is just not a thing. It’s a made up thing in a time of great uncertainty.

And then there’s the wisdom of this sailor girl

My personal belief is that these kinds of conspiracy theories arise because people hate uncertainty, and don’t like to accept that there are some things they have no control over. They would rather believe that Someone Out There has some kind of control, and that they can take back that control by exerting some decisive action in their own lives, or autonomy over their own bodies. Defying authority in this way is a way to do that. And really, in some ways, I get that. It’s been very hard to have so much of our lives taken out of our own sphere of influence over the past year and a half. But this? Putting all of your energy into refusing to let vaccinated people come into your school, your midwifery practice, your hair salon? This is not the answer. If you need more autonomy over your environment, get a peloton. Get a dog. Take up knitting. Repaint your bedroom. But try to do those things with just a teensy bit of scientific understanding.

Fieldpoppy is Cate Creede, who has a PhD in communication theory, and is much happier when she stays off Twitter.

3 thoughts on “Why are people worried about “vaccine shedding”? (Spoiler alert: it’s NOT A THING!!!!!!)

  1. Thanks Cate for tracking this down. I didn’t think it was a thing. I thought it was bizarre that people would think that. But you’ve helped explain how we got to this strange place. Not sure what I’ll do if I encounter anti-vaxxers in my world. I’ve decided I won’t ever go back to the anti-lockdown hair studio in Guelph. But if my massage therapist was opposed to vaccination and felt the need to share that view? I guess I’d go elsewhere? Still unsettled about that. And if they asked me not to come b/c I was vaccinated, think I’d say ‘fine’ and wave goodbye. Strange times.

  2. Part of this comes from a clear misunderstanding of how research works. Of course pregnancy and impregnating need to be reported, like you say. While there will always be (and always have been) anti-vaxxers, the levels of hesitancy we’ve seen from otherwise rational people highlight how much more work is needed to drive public engagement of science, or whatever the next science communication model is going to be. Especially when it comes to communicating risk, which has been a massive failure.
    At the very least, I am glad that some people have at least turned to me and asked me to explain how the vaccine works, what I think of the blood clots etc (the shedding is a new one to me thankfully!)

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